Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gopher Gab: Making the Most out of the N.I.T.

By Jason Rossow

Is it better to “WIN” the NIT or lose in the first round of the NCAA’s? Well, I think that depends on the team. For this year’s Gopher squad, I believe that playing four or five NIT games will do more for the team than losing one game in the NCAA’s. 

There is not one senior Gopher who has played a single minute in the Big10 Tourney or NIT.  When the best player on the team (Trevor Mbakwe) went down in November, it pretty much eliminated the Gophers from being a legit threat in the Big10. Finishing 6-12 in the conference was actually better than I had expected after losing the beast down low.

Going to the NIT with a sixth seed and traveling east in the first round, I assumed that, like every other Tubby postseason, this was a one-and-done type of tournament. But the Gophers have made the most of their NIT experience, and I believe they're gaining momentum for the 2012-2013 season.

Four Gophers have stepped up their games this post season, and I feel good about the direction this team is headed for the first time since Mbakwe was playing. 

Rodney Williams, the freak with the 46" vertical, makes nightly appearances on ESPN's Top-10 with his sick dunking ability. Up until this season he was a very raw, and very unreliable.  However, this season he leads the team in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, and is probably second only to Blake Griffin in ESPN Top-10 plays. Including the quarterfinal loss to Michigan, Rodney has scored 20, 21, 21, and 24 respectively, while shooting a crazy 8-10, 9-17, 9-10 and 8-11!  Whoever said “the dunk is the highest percent shot in basketball" wasn’t dumb.

Andre Hollins has found his game, and I’m jacked for his future at Minnesota. Going into the Big10 tourney, Hollis was averaging a boring 5.0 points per game. Since the start of the Big10 Tourney, he’s gone for 25, 21, 13, 14 and 24. His 46 points in two Big10 Tourney games resulted in a selection to the All-Tourney Team. Just a freshman, Hollins has played like a senior the past six games. He has suddenly become the guy you want having the ball in crunch time, and is delivering like a legit star. His 92% free throw shooting is perfect for your main ball handler to ice games as he did last night.

Elliot Elliason has been forced into a ton of minutes. This season was supposed to see Sampson, Iverson, Mbakwe and Walker using up most of the post minutes. However, Sampson is now injured and hasn’t played the past five games, Mbakwe and Walker had season-long injuries and Iverson transferred after last season. Elliason has done a solid job holding the fort down and learning on the job. Last night he had his best game yet, delivering 12 points, 7 boards, 2 blocks, 2 steals and an assist. 

Andre Ingram probably should be playing for Winona State, but is suddenly the only post player the Gophers have on the bench. He logged a total of 60 minutes in the entire Big10 season, but has played 56 minutes the past five games. His hustle and defense are a big reason the Gophers are still playing.

The past five games, have been a good head start for next season, as this one was pretty much lost when Mbakwe went down. The Gophers beat a decent Northwestern team at the Big10 Tourney, and lost a close game to Big10 co-champion Michigan. Then, they went on the road and have won three straight in the NIT. Now, they get the chance to gain even more valuable experience going to New York City for the Not In Tournament (NIT) Final 4. Next year, IF Mbakwe is given another year of eligibility and Williams returns, this team should be a legit top-four team in the Big10 with the ability to compete with anyone. Austin Hollins has proven he’s a steady player, and Andre Hollins has star capacity. An improved Williams to go along with Mbakwe, and this team has the ingredients to be legit. Throw in Joe Coleman, who should only get better, and depth from Welch, Walker and Elliason, and hopefully Tubby has his first real contender at Minnesota. 

Now, with next year’s team, I’d rather take a one-and-done in the NCAA’s than see a veteran team in the NIT. But this season, I’ve found the NIT to be some of the most entertaining Gopher hoops I’ve seen all year. Which is both good and bad…

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